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From her upbringing in rural Kerry to captaining Ireland: The rise of Ciara Griffin

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Ireland captain Ciara Griffin. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Ireland captain Ciara Griffin. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Ireland captain Ciara Griffin. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

There is something in the soil around Castleisland. The East Kerry town nestled close to both the Limerick and Cork borders has given birth to some of rugby's finest.

That hard-nosed leader of men Mick Galwey comes from over the road in Currow - JJ Hanrahan too - and the Ireland Women's captain grew up close by in Ballymacelligott.

While Galwey has moved away, Ciara Griffin is about as firmly rooted as any person could be to home.

"Yeah, I am from Ballymac, the biggest parish in Ireland, that's our claim to fame," she said.

The daughter of a rugby-loving farmer Denis and education-centred teacher Kathleen has ended up following in the footsteps of both.

By day, Griffin is a primary school teacher at CBS Tralee, by night and weekend, a club, provincial and international rugby player.

She was always going to end up swapping a round ball for an oval one in the county where Gaelic football is the other religion.

"Rugby was always in the house," she said at the Ireland team base at the Carlton Hotel in Blanchardstown.

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Ireland captain Ciara Griffin with parents Denis and Kathleen, sister Fiona and boyfriend Damien O’Sullivan. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Ireland captain Ciara Griffin with parents Denis and Kathleen, sister Fiona and boyfriend Damien O’Sullivan. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Pestering

"I was pestering Dad for years to take me down to Castleisland RFC," she said.

"He was coaching there. I would go with him to matches and play with the ball on the sideline. I just wanted the chance to run out there too."

Every teenager needs a place to put their energy and, as luck would have it, the barriers to playing were removed in time for Griffin to give it a go when Castleisland set up U-14 and U-16 teams for girls in the area.

"It was just great timing. It was set up and I got the chance to play and learn the basics," she said.

"I just have a love for the game, the love for the 'Island'. You were playing with the people you are growing up with. That's the big thing. You went into battle with your friends. You came off the pitch with your friends. It was that parish mentality."

From the get-go, Griffin liked what she saw and, pretty soon, liked how the game felt.

"I love the physicality and I love the discipline," she remarked.

"If you are an inch offside, it is a penalty and you have let your team down and I hate letting people down.

"You want to do your best for everyone and for yourself. It is the way I am built. It was always drilled into us at home to have respect for yourself and other people."

The Munster flanker carries this with her wherever she goes, even into work where her school principles are book-ended by rugby-related values.

"Even in the classroom, we have five rules on our wall. They are respect, do your best, hands-and-feet to yourself, hand up and winning attitude. They are my pillars for the class.

"If you have good respect for others in the classroom, it just bodes well for the atmosphere.

"That winning attitude is about trying your best, no matter whether or not you think you are good at something. You back yourself really."

That is exactly what Griffin did in 2011 when in first year at St Mary's Immaculate College in Limerick, bussing it up and down from home.

She found out about Munster trials and committed to giving them a go. She couldn't have done it without her dad Denis.

"I didn't have my driving licence at the time and I remember how dad drove up from Tralee to Limerick to collect me, drove from there to Cork Institute of Technology, watched the trial, brought me back to Limerick and turned for home in Tralee."

Like so many times before, the drive back with coach Denis was the perfect time to review the trial.

"There is always honest conversation between us about things I have done well and things I can improve on. He is not going to blow you up if you haven't done something right," said Griffin.

"The fact my parents backed me was a source of encouragement to always do my best, always keep improving, strive to be better."

Success has come on the back of failing to make the Ireland grade in 2014 and 2015.

"I always looked for feedback - what can I do? What can I improve on? I locked myself in the gym for a while."

The third time was a charm as Griffin joined elite company to prepare for the 2016 Six Nations before being hobbled by injury.

"I broke my leg in the very first camp, just the fibula, non-weight bearing. If you are going to break one, it is the best one.

"I was only out for five weeks, pushed myself in rehab. It happened in October. I was back training properly in December.

"You can take it as a setback and dwell on it or work on other areas. My leg was out of action. I could still work on my upper body, on my strength. I could still do cardio on an assault bike."

Griffin even came up with a novel idea to accelerate her recovery.

"I texted my sister to ask her to go to Argos to buy me a skateboard," shared the flanker.

"I strapped my right leg onto the board and put my left leg on the rowing machine, rolling the leg forward and back on the board as I exercised."

In 2016, Griffin's first cap came against Wales in Donnybrook and the memory is as clear now as it was then.

"It was massive, a culmination of all the slogging away, the years of hard work, the years of having a dream. The first one was a big thing, made so much of the work worthwhile."

The call to captain came in January 2018. She rang Denis straight away: "I was absolutely thrilled. You have to jump at the chance," said Griffin.

It takes a lot for Kerry people to come to Dublin, even on All-Ireland final day. Denis and Kathleen will be there at the Energia tomorrow.

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